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EPA point man during Gold King spill tells Ophir residents ‘Don’t get excited’ about yellow water

Former coordinator who gave orders that caused blowout now working on Telluride-area cleanup

The Environmental Protection Agency on-scene coordinator whose orders last August ultimately caused the Gold King Mine blowout recently had some choice words about the people of Durango and their reaction to the event.

In a July 22 interview with the Telluride Daily Planet, Hays Griswold, speaking of a cleanup project set to begin at a mine near Ophir, cautioned residents there that work might cause some discoloration in the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River.

“You may see some yellow water. Don’t get excited like they do in Durango,” Griswold said.

EPA press secretary Melissa Harrison wrote in an emailed response that Griswold’s comments do not reflect the views of the agency. Requests for an interview with Griswold were ignored, and independent attempts to reach him Thursday were unsuccessful.

Since the spill, members of the public have demanded answers on why Griswold was not fired nor received any punishment for his actions that day. The EPA, for its part, has maintained Griswold was “completely consistent” with work orders.

“The agency will consider the Department of the Interior’s Technical Evaluation of the Gold King Mine Incident report and the pending reviews from the General Accountability Office and EPA’s Office of Inspector General before making any final personnel decisions,” Harrison wrote.

Dan Olson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, rebuffed any remarks that the magnitude of the spill, which highlighted the long-standing issue of heavy metals from inactive mines leeching into waterways, was overplayed.

“I’m surprised that anyone working for or with the EPA could be so glib with their remarks,” Olson said. “That a community gets ‘excited’ when millions of gallons of waste, orange or otherwise, flows through the center of town is not only reasonable, it’s prudent.”

Griswold last August was charged with taking over cleanup efforts at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton while the EPA’s permanent on-scene coordinator, Steve Way, was on vacation.

Just days into his command, Griswold gave the EPA’s contracted crews orders to dig into the loose pile of dirt and rock that covered the entrance to the mine – despite clear instructions left by Way to postpone any such work due to the inherit risk of a blowout.

As a result, 3 million gallons of mine wastewater, laced with heavy metals, broke through the earthen dam, and prompted emergency responses in communities in three states – Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – as well as two Native American tribes.

In Durango, the spill shut down the Animas River for eight days, and caused rafting companies and other outdoor outfitters to take a financial hit, forced the town and irrigators to close intakes, and incited fears about the river’s health and potential long-term impacts to tourism.

In February, the House Committee on Natural Resources heavily criticized Griswold for disregarding Way’s instructions, and said Griswold’s post-spill testimony raised “serious questions about nearly everything ... about the EPA’s work at the Gold King Mine and the disaster caused by the EPA.”

Griswold is now tasked with cleaning up 15,000 cubic yards of mill tailings at the Carribeau Mine, west of Ophir, according to the Telluride Daily Planet. He will not, however, be touching the mine’s adit, which is leaking anywhere from 600 to 800 gallons of mine drainage a minute.

The EPA’s Harrison wrote that the remediation plan for Carribeau Mine is under review by the regional office, and no final decisions have been made about the work.

The EPA’s efforts in the Silverton mining district, now proposed for Superfund listing as the Bonita Peak Mining District, are under the direction of Rebecca Thomas, remedial project manager.


Aug 4, 2016
EPA manager says Superfund warranted in Silverton area

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